A Track For All Seasons

You see it coming from the signs, whether you approach from the north or the south. At each signpost, five lanes of asphalt snake away from Route 106. The north entrance disappears briefly into the trees; the south entrance carves a more visible path between gravel parking lots. As you continue on the main road, the scenery shifts back to the same mix of homes and woods. Then the trees clear, and you see it: buildings marked with blue signs, a maze of roads and parking lots reaching eastward, red-framed grandstands with their backs draped in banners. And the whole complex is eerily quiet, because on its biggest days, you would never think of driving past.

The former main gate of the speedway now serves as a VIP entryway to the track grounds.

I’ve spoken before of the small race tracks around New Hampshire, but New Hampshire Motor Speedway (NHMS) is something greater.

The property sitting on the town line of Loudon and Gilmanton was once called Bryar Motorsports Park. Bryar was a multi-purpose racing facility, featuring a road course best known for its use in motorcycle races scheduled around Laconia’s annual Motorcycle Week. The aging facility was purchased by track owner Bob Bahre, who in 1989 began redeveloping the site with the intent of attracting major-league NASCAR-sanctioned racing to New Hampshire.

Without the aid of formal engineers, and with no guarantees of ever hosting a big race, Bahre carved a mile-long, paperclip-shaped oval into the grounds off Route 106. By opening the backstretch wall, the oval could be converted into a 1.6-mile-long road course capable of hosting go-karting and motorcycle events as Bryar had done before. The new track, named New Hampshire International Speedway (NHIS), opened in 1990.

NASCAR tested the new track by hosting races from its regional and second-tier series for a few years. As the largest track in the area and the largest many local racers had ever experienced, success on the big track was especially noteworthy. Bahre also courted IndyCar-style racing for his track, holding the track’s first CART race in 1992. The early success of the track inspired NASCAR to assign NHIS a date for its premier division, then the Winston Cup Series, in July of 1993. It was the series’ first appearance in New England since the late 1960s.

NASCAR races at NHMS are the premier spectator event at the track, and some of the largest sports crowds in New England.

The success of the first Cup Series race, coupled with NASCAR’s mid-1990s popularity boom, fueled the track’s growth in the coming years. Additions to the grandstands and luxury suites accommodated a growing waiting list for tickets. Dates were added for NASCAR’s then-new Truck Series starting in 1996, and a second Cup Series race was scheduled for the fall of 1997. Traffic control became a bigger issue as the crowd grew, so that five-lane access road was carved out from north to south, diverting traffic away from the outgrown main gate on Route 106 and directing cars to the network of parking spaces and camping grounds around the track.

Through additions and renovations, NHIS became what, at its peak, was the largest sporting facility in New England, with grandstand space for nearly 90,000 fans, plus those watching from the infield or the camping lots along the backstretch. Twice a year, little Loudon could rival the largest cities in the state.

A race is part of a traveling roadshow, with tracks constantly scheming new ways to entertain the thousands of visitors (and overnight campers) passing through.

A new chapter in the track’s life began in 2008, when North Carolina-based Speedway Motorsports (SMI) purchased the track from the retiring Bahres. SMI renamed the track New Hampshire Motor Speedway, to match other tracks in their portfolio. SMI reinforced the track’s identity, courting new sponsors and making improvements to the grounds.

All this seems like a lot of effort and expense for two weekends a year. To that end, track management has been active in finding other uses for the sprawling speedway grounds. A summer series of motorcycle and road racing occupies plenty of summer weekends. Occasional weekends are booked for high-performance driving experiences and car club sessions. The track has also welcomed back IndyCar racing and Global RallyCross competition, though both were one-time appearances in the last several years.

Cars weave through the speedway grounds during the annual Gift Of Lights display.

By no means are the grounds only useful for automotive exploits. The parking lots and access roads have been used for foot races, color runs and adventure races. A pumpkin-tossing event has been on the post-racing schedule the last few years. In winter, a trail around the track property is decorated with Christmas scenes, with the proceeds donated to charity. A new option on the horizon is a country music festival, something they hope to arrange in the next year or two.

Events like this have two goals. The first, naturally, is to make money throughout the year. The second is lofty, but just as important; it welcomes outsiders to the track, and encourages them to experience other activities at the track. If it draws them to a race, even better.

New Hampshire Motor Speedway has been compared to W.P. Kinsella’s “Field of Dreams.” Conceived as a calculated gamble, the track has become a cornerstone of the state’s economy and a proud representative of competition in New Hampshire.

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